The Crossing (review)

George Washington Slept Here

The American Revolution is such an exciting historical period — full of impassioned, larger-than-life characters and grand themes — that I’m amazed it hasn’t been given a Braveheart treatment yet. I had a notion to try a hand at writing such a thing myself… until I heard about the upcoming Mel Gibson movie, The Patriot. Seeing as it is being directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla), it has about even chances of being either a riproaring adventure or a colossal dud. Sucker that I am for big, sweepingly dramatic historical films, I’m hoping for the former.
It’s no Braveheart, but while I wait for The Patriot, The Crossing is a tasty appetizer. Sure and steady, this stately original film from the A&E cable network focuses on a brief moment of the seven-year-long war for American independence: the Battle of Trenton, when the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, George Washington, averted the imminent end of the colonial rebellion and handed the enemy his first defeat.

You probably remember the general details from junior-high-school history: On Christmas Day, 1776, Washington led his men in a sneak attack on the Hessian mercenaries, in British employ and bunkered in Trenton, surprising them and giving them a good kick in the butt. You’ve seen the souvenir postcard, too: that famous painting of Washington standing heroically on the prow of that boat as he crosses the Delaware River.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course — today we recognize Washington’s audacity as military genius, but at the time he was seen by some as more a foundering farmer than a Founding Father. In The Crossing — written by renowned historian Howard Fast, based on his own novel — Jeff Daniels (My Favorite Martian, Pleasantville) portrays the relatively young Washington as a stolid, implacable man whose sense of humor and daring imagination only rarely surfaces. Even his ingenious plan of attack is presented more out of resigned desperation than anything else, including much hope of pulling it off.

Six months after the Declaration of Independence, in December 1776, the Continental Army of the rebel colonies is decimated, and the surviving men are sick, wounded, cold, hungry, and ill-equipped. Fleeing pursuing bands of Hessians and British redcoats, Washington manages to scrounge up the only available boats on the Delaware River and put it between his army and the enemy, at least temporarily. While they huddle on the western banks of the Delaware, 1200 Hessians — “the most disciplined, the most rigorously trained, the best” soldiers in the world — occupy the village of Trenton, on the eastern side, to keep an eye on the rebels. Washington has no food, no medicine, and no blankets for his men, and when the river freezes, the Hessians and British will simply walk across and take the city of Philadelphia without meaningful opposition, and that will be that: the rebellion will be crushed.

But an evening recce to spy on the Hessians inspires a mad scheme to surprise the complacent mercenaries. On the night of December 25, Washington proposes to lead his men back across the river and catch the Hessians napping, literally, hungover from Christmas revelry and completely unprepared for such guerrilla tactics. His generals are dumbfounded by the suggestion, and Washington’s one moment of overt emotion comes here: When the royalist-leaning Gates (Nigel Bennett: Murder at 1600) avers that Washington and his “colonial cronies” are “no soldiers,” Washington comes to an impassioned defense of the “lads” — mere boys — who make up his army, and the “bumbling Virginia farmer” they follow: himself.

Characterization is sketchy in The Crossing, which mines its drama from the logistics of its very nearly foolhardy stratagem. But the contentious relationship between Washington and his colonel, John Glover (Sebastian Roche: The Peacemaker, who just about steals the show), symbolizes the heart of why the American revolution was so, well, revolutionary. A fisherman by trade who refuses to wear the uniform, silks, or powdered wig of an officer, Glover is a “sour, foul-mouthed barbarian,” according to one of Washington’s generals, to which Glover cheerfully agrees. He’s the salt of American earth that fought and won every American war, yes, but in this war, he was, for the first time ever, an ordinary man fighting for himself, not for a prince or a king. He butts heads with the gentleman commander-in-chief, but they bolster each other: Washington’s almost impractical intrepidness is grounded by Glover’s realism. Glover’s down-to-earth skill with a boat is, in fact, vital to the success of their battle plans.

Even though we know how it all ends, there are moving moments to be found here, as in the dirty and determined face of Washington’s aide-de-camp, Captain Alexander Hamilton (Steven McCarthy), as he rides off just before the battle to take out the Hessian sentries. And a startling revelation after the battle, via General Hugh Mercer (Roger Rees: A Midsummer Night’s Dream), leaves Washington stunned, perhaps for the first time aware of how chancy his prospects were and how much his risk-taking has paid off.

Washington’s victory at Trenton was a Christmas gift to the Continental Congress. The Crossing, coming as the holiday season ends, is like that last little tidbit you find at the bottom of your stocking as you’re packing away the Christmas decorations: a pleasant surprise.

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